THE LOST SANJAK

The prison Chaplain entered the condemneds cell for the

last time, to give such consolation as he might.

“The only consolation I crave for,” said the condemned,

“is to tell my story in its entirety to some one who will

at least give it a respectful hearing.”

“We must not be too long over it,” said the Chaplain,

looking at his watch.

The condemned repressed a shiver and commenced.

“Most people will be of opinion that I am paying the

penalty of my own violent deeds. In reality I am a victim

to a lack of specialization in my education and character.”

“Lack of specialization!” said the Chaplain.

“Yes. If I had been known as one of the few men in

England familiar with the fauna of the Outer Hebrides, or

able to repeat stanzas of Camoens’ poetry in the

original, I should have had no difficulty in proving my

identity in the crisis when my identity became a matter of

life and death for me. But my education was merely a

moderately good one, and my temperament was of the general

order that avoids specialization. I know a little in a

general way about gardening and history and old masters, but

I could never tell you off-hand whether `Stella van der

Loopen’ was a chrysanthemum or a heroine of the American War

of Independence, or something by Romney in the Louvre.”

The Chaplain shifted uneasily in his seat. Now that the

alternatives had been suggested they all seemed dreadfully

possible.

“I fell in love, or thought I did, with the local

doctor’s wife,” continued the condemned. “Why I should

have done so, I cannot say, for I do not remember that she

possessed any particular attractions of mind or body. On

looking back at past events it seems to me that she must

have been distinctly ordinary, but I suppose the doctor had

fallen in love with her once, and what man has done man can

do. She appeared to be pleased with the attentions which I

paid her, and to that extent I suppose I might say she

encouraged me, but I think she was honestly unaware that I

meant anything more than a little neighbourly interest.

When one is face to face with Death one wishes to be just.”

The Chaplain murmured approval. “At any rate, she was

genuinely horrified when I took advantage of the doctor’s

absence one evening to declare what I believed to be my

passion. She begged me to pass out of her life and I could

scarcely do otherwise than agree, though I hadn’t the

dimmest idea of how it was to be done. In novels and plays

I knew it was a regular occurrence, and if you mistook a

lady’s sentiments or intentions you went off to India and

did things on the frontier as a matter of course. As I

stumbled along the doctor’s carriage-drive I had no very

clear idea as to what my line of action was to be, but I had

a vague feeling that I must look at the Times Atlas before

going to bed. Then, on the dark and lonely highway, I came

suddenly on a dead body.”

The Chaplain’s interest in the story visibly quickened.

“Judging by the clothes it wore the corpse was that of a

Salvation Army captain. Some shocking accident seemed to

have struck him down, and the head was crushed and battered

out of all human semblance. Probably, I thought, a

motor-car fatality; and then, with a sudden overmastering

insistence, came another thought, that here was a remarkable

opportunity for losing my identity and passing out of the

life of the doctor’s wife for ever. No tiresome and risky

voyage to distant lands, but a mere exchange of clothes and

identity with the unknown victim of an unwitnessed accident.

With considerable difficulty I undressed the corpse, and

clothed it anew in my own garments. Any one who has valeted

a dead Salvation Army captain in an uncertain light will

appreciate the difficulty. With the idea, presumably, of

inducing the doctor’s wife to leave her husband’s roof-tree

for some habitation which would be run at my expense, I had

crammed my pockets with a store of banknotes, which

represented a good deal of my immediate worldly wealth.

When, therefore, I stole away into the world in the guise of

a nameless Salvationist, I was not without resources which

would easily support so humble a role for a considerable

period. I tramped to a neighbouring market-town, and, late

as the hour was, the production of a few shillings procured

me supper and a night’s lodging in a cheap coffee-house.

The next day I started forth on an aimless course of

wandering from one small town to another. I was already

somewhat disgusted with the upshot of my sudden freak; in a

few hours’ time I was considerably more so. In the

contents-bill of a local news sheet I read the announcement

of my own murder at the hands of some person unknown; on

buying a copy of the paper for a detailed account of the

tragedy, which at first had aroused in me a certain grim

amusement, I found that the deed was ascribed to a wandering

Salvationist of doubtful antecedents, who had been seen

lurking in the roadway near the scene of the crime. I was

no longer amused. The matter promised to be embarrassing.

What I had mistaken for a motor accident was evidently a

case of savage assault and murder, and, until the real

culprit was found, I should have much difficulty in

explaining my intrusion into the affair. Of course I could

establish my own identity; but how, without disagreeably

involving the doctor’s wife, could I give any adequate

reason for changing clothes with the murdered man? While my

brain worked feverishly at this problem, I subconsciously

obeyed a secondary instinct—to get as far away as possible

from the scene of the crime, and to get rid at all costs of

my incriminating uniform. There I found a difficulty. I

tried two or three obscure clothes shops, but my entrance

invariably aroused an attitude of hostile suspicion in the

proprietors, and on one excuse or another they avoided

serving me with the now ardently desired change of clothing.

The uniform that I had so thoughtlessly donned seemed as

difficult to get out of as the fatal shirt of—You know, I

forget the creature’s name.”

“Yes, yes,” said the Chaplain hurriedly. “Go on with

your story.”

“Somehow, until I could get out of those compromising

garments, I felt it would not be safe to surrender myself to

the police. The thing that puzzled me was why no attempt

was made to arrest me, since there was no question as to the

suspicion which followed me, like an inseparable shadow,

wherever I went. Stares, nudgings, whisperings, and even

loud-spoken remarks of `that’s ‘im’ greeted my every

appearance, and the meanest and most deserted eating-house

that I patronized soon became filled with a crowd of

furtively watching customers. I began to sympathize with

the feelings of Royal personages trying to do a little

private shopping under the unsparing scrutiny of an

irrepressible public. And still, with all this inarticulate

shadowing, which weighed on my nerves almost worse than open

hostility would have done, no attempt was made to interfere

with my liberty. Later on I discovered the reason. At the

time of the murder on the lonely highway a series of

important blood-hound trials had been taking place in the

near neighbourhood, and some dozen and a half couples of

trained animals had been put on the track of the supposed

murderer—on my track. One of our most public-spirited

London dailies had offered a princely prize to the owner of

the pair that should first track me down, and betting on the

chances of the respective competitors became rife throughout

the land. The dogs ranged far and wide over about thirteen

counties, and though my own movements had become by this

time perfectly well known to police and public alike, the

sporting instincts of the nation stepped in to prevent my

premature arrest. `Give the dogs a chance,’ was the

prevailing sentiment, whenever some ambitious local

constable wished to put an end to my drawn-out evasion of

justice. My final capture by the winning pair was not a

very dramatic episode, in fact, I’m not sure that they would

have taken any notice of me if I hadn’t spoken to them and

patted them, but the event gave rise to an extraordinary

amount of partisan excitement. The owner of the pair who

were next nearest up at the finish was an American, and he

lodged a protest on the ground that an otterhound had

married into the family of the winning pair six generations

ago, and that the prize had been offered to the first pair

of bloodhounds to capture the murderer, and that a dog that

had one sixty-fourth part of otterhound blood in it couldn’t

technically be considered a bloodhound. I forget how the

matter was ultimately settled, but it aroused a tremendous

amount of acrimonious discussion on both sides of the

Atlantic. My own contribution to the controversy consisted

in pointing out that the whole dispute was beside the mark,

as the actual murderer had not yet been captured; but I soon

discovered that on this point there was not the least

divergence of public or expert opinion. I had looked

forward apprehensively to the proving of my identity and the

establishment of my motives as a disagreeable necessity; I

speedily found out that the most disagreeable part of the

business was that it couldn’t be done. When I saw in the

glass the haggard and hunted expression which the

experiences of the past few weeks had stamped on my

erstwhile placid countenance, I could scarcely feel

surprised that the few friends and relations I possessed

refused to recognize me in my altered guise, and persisted

in their obstinate but widely shared belief that it was I

who had been done to death on the highway. To make matters

worse, infinitely worse, an aunt of the really murdered man,

an appalling female of an obviously low order of

intelligence, identified me as her nephew, and gave the

authorities a lurid account of my depraved youth and of her

laudable but unavailing efforts to spank me into a better

way. I believe it was even proposed to search me for

finger-prints.”

“But,” said the Chaplain, “surely your educational

attainments—”

“That was just the crucial point,” said the condemned;

“that was where my lack of specialization told so fatally

against me. The dead Salvationist, whose identity I had so

lightly and so disastrously adopted, had possessed a veneer

of cheap modern education. It should have been easy to

demonstrate that my learning was on altogether another plane

to his, but in my nervousness I bungled miserably over test

after test that was put to me. The little French I had ever

known deserted me; I could not render a simple phrase about

the gooseberry of the gardener into that language, because I

had forgotten the French for gooseberry.”

The Chaplain again wriggled uneasily in his seat. “And

then,” resumed the condemned, “came the final

discomfiture. In our village we had a modest little

debating club, and I remembered having promised, chiefly, I

suppose, to please and impress the doctor’s wife, to give a

sketchy kind of lecture on the Balkan Crisis. I had relied

on being able to get up my facts from one or two standard

works, and the back-numbers of certain periodicals. The

prosecution had made a careful note of the circumstance that

the man whom I claimed to be—and actually was—had posed

locally as some sort of second-hand authority on Balkan

affairs, and, in the midst of a string of questions on

indifferent topics, the examining counsel asked me with a

diabolical suddenness if I could tell the Court the

whereabouts of Novibazar. I felt the question to be a

crucial one; something told me that the answer was St.

Petersburg or Baker Street. I hesitated, looked helplessly

round at the sea of tensely expectant faces, pulled myself

together, and chose Baker Street. And then I knew that

everything was lost. The prosecution had no difficulty in

demonstrating that an individual, even moderately versed in

the affairs of the Near East, could never have so

unceremoniously dislocated Novibazar from its accustomed

corner of the map. It was an answer which the Salvation

Army captain might conceivably have made—and I had made

it. The circumstantial evidence connecting the Salvationist

with the crime was overwhelmingly convincing, and I had

inextricably identified myself with the Salvationist. And

thus it comes to pass that in ten minutes’ time I shall be

hanged by the neck until I am dead in expiation of the

murder of myself, which murder never took place, and of

which, in any case, I am necessarily innocent.”

*

When the Chaplain returned to his quarters, some fifteen

minutes later, the black flag was floating over the prison

tower. Breakfast was waiting for him in the dining-room,

but he first passed into his library, and, taking up the

Times Atlas, consulted a map of the Balkan Peninsula. “A

thing like that,” he observed, closing the volume with a

snap, “might happen to any one.”